New Microscope Is First of Its Kind

The first commercial version of a new light microscope that pushes beyond the previous limits for viewing living processes has just been installed at the UC Davis Center for Biophotonics Science and Technology.

The microscope -- called OMX for Optical Microscopy eXperimental -- allows cellular processes to be viewed at the smallest possible levels and as they occur, providing significant advantages to researchers seeking to understand and treat disease.

UC Davis researchers are already planning to use the microscope in studies of traumatic brain injury and breast cancer.

"OMX is a breakthrough technology in microscopy because it overcomes a long-standing barrier, the diffraction limit of light, to significantly increase the resolution of light microscopes," said biophotonics center director Dennis Matthews. "The implications for medicine are profound, since the foundations of disease lie far deeper in cell structures than we can currently observe. With OMX, it is possible to see those cellular structures and how they 'talk' in real time."

The new microscope is twice as powerful as the best conventional light microscope. The technique on which it is based, called structured illumination, has the potential for a 10-fold improvement, allowing the imaging of small structures within cells.

The OMX was developed over the last five years at UCSF by professors John Sedat and David Agard. The project was supported by the biophotonics center through a grant from the National Science Foundation.

The diffraction limit has been an insurmountable barrier to medical researchers wanting to view cellular processes as they occur. Electron microscopes are high resolution but cannot be used to view living samples. Optical fluorescence microscopy allows imaging of live samples, but is relatively low resolution.

Structured illumination was invented by UCSF postdoctoral researcher Mats Gustafsson to overcome these limitations. A carefully designed pattern of light, rather like a bar code, is used to illuminate an object. This bar code produces unfocused -- or moiré -- patterns. Sophisticated software is used to digitally reconstruct three-dimensional, ultra-high-resolution images from the multiple individual images generated with the illumination pattern.

The OMX can also produce rapid three-dimensional images of live samples in real time to study cellular processes in action.

Media Resources

Andy Fell, Research news (emphasis: biological and physical sciences, and engineering), 530-752-4533,

Tod Stoltz, Center for Biophotonics Science and Technology, (916) 734-8447,

Karen Finney, UC Davis Health System, 916-734-9064,